Sweet ‘n’Jo

Friday, Nov 22, 2013

Premiere — January 1995

— by Larissa MacFarquhar

Unfaraid of being unhip, Winona Ryder forges a simon-pure ‘Little Women’

Winona Ryder is being perfectly adorable. Four words! she signals. First word! Movie! She twinkles flirtatiously and bats her eyelashes, laces her fingers and rests her chin on them like a Precious Moments figurine. She poses for a moment — then suddenly extends her arms and starts sashaying around. “Shy!” sqeuaks Eva, the nine-year-old daughter of Susan Sarandon, watching Ryder’s every move. Wrong. “Dancer!” Wrong. “Pretty,” guesses Sarandon. More, bigger, Ryder signs. “Beautiful!” Sarandon cries, getting involved. Close, so close, but shorter. “Beauty?” Sarandon guesses. “Beauty and the Beast!” Eva yells, ecstatic. Yes! ** It’s a lighthearted interlude just after lunch on the Vancouver set of what will be the fourth movie adaptation of , Louisa May Alcott’s novel for girls. The set is dominated by a New England house, surrounded by a complicated ersatz-nature arrangement that enables the house photogenic inhabitants to enjoy autumn from the kitchen window, winter from the parlor, and summer from around the corner. Sarandon is playing Marmee, the matriarch of Little Women’s fictional March family. Ryder, naturally, is playing Jo — the coolest March sister, the tomboy, the heroine.

Denise De Novi, Little Women’s producer, loves to talk about Ryder and how fabulous she is in the movie. “Did you see Reality Bites?” Di Novi asks. “I think that’s the first film where you really see how adorable Winona is. She’s the most charming, funny, sweet person.” Charming, funny, sweet — and cute as a bunny too. Not exactly the obvious choice to play Jo, who’s prickly, awkward, antisocial, and one of fiction’s few pointedly unbeautiful heroines. Well, this is, after all, a Christmas movie. And Ryder is, after all, an actress.

Di Novi swears Ryder can handle the part. “She’s actually more like Jo in real life than any other character she’s played,” she claims. “Winona may be little, but her personality is big.” Ryder herself is positive she doesn’t look too pretty. “I hardly wore any makeup at all!” she says earnestly. “And with my hair pulled back in a braid, I look very plain.” Besides, Ryder’s brand of sweetness is also Little Women’s: She’s got a childlike, just-milked-the-cows lilt that’s perfect for the movie, if not for the part of Jo. The occasional “fuck” notwithstanding, Ryder usually talks like Cindy Brady, or the original Tiny Tim. “I’ve just had one of the greatest times I’ve ever had making a movie,” she syas with a happy sigh, “because I really truly love everybody so much. I know it sounds cliche, but the girls really do feel like my sisters, you know?”

There are four sisters in Little Women, plus one mother and a (mostly absent) father. The six Marches are modeled on Louisa May Alcott’s own family — a fractious, eccentric, impoverished, pious group who lived in a number of places up and down the Eastern seaboard during the middle of the 19th century. Alcott’s mother, Abby, came from an upper-class Boston family with a history of involvement in the antislavery movement. Louisa’s father, Bronson, was part of the Emerson-Thoreau-Margaret Fuller transcendentalist circle in the 1830’s and ’40s. He became famous for his Socratic teaching method, which aimed to draw knowledge out of small children rather than put it in. Bronson’s obsession with child development led him to do some dubious things in the service of truth. He allowed his daughter, Anna, when she was only a few months old, to twice put her hand in the flame of an oil lamp: the first time to show her it would hurt, the second to make sure she wouldn’t forget. Later on, he convinced her that she should love him all the more for punishing her since punishment made her good, and he was so convincing that Anna took to beggingm “Father, punish! Father, punish!”

Louisa, the second Alcott daughter, wrote Little Women in 1868 under pressure from her publisher, who thought it would sell. “Mr N. wants a girls’ story… so I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing,” she wrote in her journal at the time. “Never liked girls or knew many except my sisters; but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.” In the novel, Jo, based on Louisa herself, changes from an evil-tempered, bookish, loud, unladylike fifteen-year-old who wants deparately to be a famous author, to a gentle, happy, married mother of two who still wants to write but has realized that love is more important than ambition. The script brings the story up to date by highlighting its PC elements and, when these do not exist, by borrowing from the lives of the Alcotts. Robin Swicord, author of the screenplay, certainly didn’t want to reproduce the medieval politics of the 1933 George Cukor Little Women (Katherine Hepburn’s Jo is great, but she ends up ironing) or the glorifious Technicolor banality of the 1949 version (June Allyson, all smiles, plays Jo as Pollyanna). To Swicord’s way of thinking, Little Women is about successful single motherhood and female artists coming of age, and so provides the ideal vehicle for a little covert validation. “I hope that young girls emerge from the movie feeling stronger and less like they live in a male-dominated world,” she says. Not surprisingly, Swicord has jettisoned the book’s Christian ambivalence toward artistic achievement: In the film, Jo’s writing becomes central. (Swicord thinks the novel’s ambivalence is Louisa May Alcotts’s unconscious apology for her father, widely considered a failure and crackpot despite his famous friends.) And Swicord has thrown in many of the Alcott causes, absent from the book, for good political measure: the temperance and women’s movemnets; the thwarted attempt to desegregate Bronson’s school; even transcedentalism.

This last item is noteworthy because it is the utopian connection that makes Ryder not quite so unlikely a choice to play Jo as she would seem. As a kid, Ryder spent four years living on an electricity-free commune in Northern California that was in some respects a hippie version of Brook Farm, the trascendentalist settlement that Bronson Alcott helped found. She was raised, Alcott-style, to be free from convention and to believe, as Ryder puts it, that “whatever you do is okay unless you hurt somebody else.” Ryder herself is unsure whether this or any other real-life likeness to Alcott or Jo helped her with the part. Mimesis is, of course, such a complicated business. “I’ve tried to have this conversation with other actors,” she says. “Are we adding our own personalities to the characters or are we creating different personalities? Acting is so strange.”

The commune experience has come in handy, though, in scenes involving candles. Ryder is accustomed to them, but noncommunnard Claire Danes was not, and managed to set her hair onfire. The crew, used to girly high spirits on the set, thought Danes’s screams weren’t serious and did nothing. Eventually Ryder leaped on top of the actress and put the fire out. “I guess Claire didn’t realize that you have to hold candles away from your head,” Ryder says.

Ryder was snagged for Little Women by Denise Di Novi; the two worked together on Heathers and Edward Scissorhands. Di Novi got involved with the movie at the behest of Amy Pascal, then an executive vice-president of production at Columbia. Pascal rang up Di Novi and asked if she’d be interested in working on the project; Di Novi said she would die to. “And I called Winona.” Di Novi recalls, “because we had talked about how much we both loved the book on the set of Heathers, and I said, ‘You won’t believe this but we can do Little Women!’ And of course she jumped and said she’d love to do it.”

Di Novi is sitting in the sparsely furnished office from which she is running the movie. The room’s only design element is a shelf-long row of Evian bottles. As she talks, Di Novi reaches for one of these and, Player-like, uses it to water a bunch of flowers. “I found Little Women a very comforting book as a kid,” Di Novi says, “because Jo wasn’t like all those other girl heroines — really pretty and popular and everything. I didn’t feel inadequate when I read about Jo. I feel bad for teenagers nowadays, reading Danille Steele and Judth Krantz novels — I’ve read a couple of then and they make me feel like a shlump.”

Di Novi is anxious to convey that Little Women is still rather radical, even in the ’90s. “It’s so important that Jo doesn’t marry Laurie, the beautiful rich guy,” she says. “I don’t want to sound like a spoilsport, but I do think on a deep psychic level it’s very harmful for both men and women to think there’s this perfect 10 out there for them.” No, she concedes, Gabriel Byrne, who player Professor Bhaer — the plain, donnish, German whom Jo does marry — is not exactly Frankenstein’s monster. “I don’t think you have to marry an ugly guy to be a feminist or something,” she begins slowly, venturing with care into this potential contradiction. “But Jo chooses her soul mate based on an intellectual, emotional, connection, not superficial, romantic, love-at-first-sight things or sexual chemistry. Anyway, Gabriel Byrne is handsome, but he’s not Richard Gere. He’s older, and kind of slobby — not your traditional hero.”

Looking for an actress to play Marmee, Di Novi decided she wanted someone “earthy and warm and sensual” — and who better than Susan Sarandon? Like Ryder, Sarandon can identify with an aspect of the Alcott family: not the commune aspect, but the religious-ethical one. Sarandon grew up in a strict Catholic family, the eldest of nine, and as a child aspired to a career as a saint. She is famously political, and at the 1993 Academy Awards she took the opportunity to make a speech about the plight of AIDS-infected Haitian refugee that was a real downer and annoyed a lot of people and was exactly what Marmee or Bronson Alcott would have said under similar circumstances. Sarandon is quick to point out, however, that there is all the difference in the world between Catholics and transcendentalists. “The Catholic Church is so misogynist, and about punishing yourself and original sin and all those doctrines that make you apologize from the day you’re born,” she says. “The Alcotts were closer to being Quakers, and the Quaker philosophy is community service and being a good person.”

Sarandon just can’t get over how great Marmee is, and what a wonderful model she makes for mothers today. So is Marmee perfect? This stops Sarandon for a second, presumably because she knows perfect is bad. “I hope she’s not perfect, or she would be so unreal,” she says. “I’m sure there’s lots of thing wrong with her. She’s a woman in struggle, as every real person is.” Is there anything about Marmee she does not identify with? “The corset and the buttpad and the hairdo I definitely don’t,” Sarandon says grimly. “And I don’t think Marmee cared what people thought of her. Also, she put up with a lot more from her husband than I would have. Under a philosophical banner, he was pretty abusive. He practically starve and froze those girls to death.”

Corsets, buttpads, abusive husbands… Little Women — as-feminist-morality-tale was definitely there to be made, but Gillian Armstrong, the movie’s director, didn’t want to make it. Unexpectedly, the Australian director of My Brilliant Career (the story of a woman who flees romance to follow her muse) and the Smokes and Lollies documnetary series (which follows a group of girls through adolescence and early adulthood) hates the idea that she might be thought of as a woman filmmaker. “I consider myself a film director and an artist,” Armstrong says, annoyed by the suggestion that Little Women might be a feminist movie. “Of course I believe in women’s rights, and of course I wouldn’t do a film that was sexist, but that doesn’t mean I want to make commercials for the women’s movement. Besides, I’ve always tought that the best way to carry a message is with a bit of entertainment.”

The bit of entertainment Armstrong has been trying for is comedy. “The thing we’re stressing is the humor,” she says. “I hope it’s not hokey.” This is a tall order. Little Women the Chrsitmas movies… well, one can only imagine. “I don’t think there are a lot of belly laughs,” Sarandon says diplomatically, “but Marmee has a certain sense of irony.”

“The humor is more in the expressions on our faces,” Ryder explains when asked the same question. “The movie is not that kind of roll-around-laughing funny, but it’s really real.”

Making Little Women has been something pf an experiment for Armstrong — the last time she worked in Hollywood the experience was a disaster: Her film, Fires Within was recut by MGM despite her protests, to the point at which she no longer fely any connection to it, and then was barely released. But Armstrong seems to be ready to forgive and get paid American wages again. “It’s the old Hollywood story,” she says philosophically. “It’s part of the game: They put up the money and then they tell the director who’s made them a $100 million success that she doesn’t have the final cut. It’s the luck of the draw, really.”

This time, just to be safe, Armstrong took the footage home and edited it in Australia. And, according to Ryder at least, it shows. “Gillian is such a great director,” Ryder says. “She’s got a real point of view I thinl Little Women is going to be a classic movie because it’s really heavy and really intelligent and in a way it’s a real art movie too — like it’ll appeal to the people who drink cappuccinos in the lobby. you know?”

And if it doesn’t, and the My Brilliant Career crowd decides to snub Armstrong’s latest pregeny, there’s still the sentimental masses, in search of warmed cockles and jerked tears, to make the movie a success. “In these times,” Ryder says, “when everything’s so hip, this movie is so pure. It’s beautiful. It’s inspiring. It’s about people, it’s about individuals, it’s about women’s rights, it’s a great love story — all the things we label corny, but they’re really not.” Ryder pauses, and sighs at the very thought of it. “It’s the knid of movie,” she says finally, “that makes you want to call your mom.”

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